In September of 1919, Italy’s greatest living poet announced his own divinity. Gabriele D’Annunzio, the war hero, statesman, and tabloid staple, had made a name for himself in World War I, losing an eye in combat and piloting planes over Vienna and Trieste to drop propaganda pamphlets. With the war over, he mobilized a group of Italian shock troops called arditi and marched them from Ronchi in Italy to the disputed Adriatic port city of Fiume chanting nationalist songs, including what he insisted was the Homeric battle cry, “Eia, eia, alalà” (which may have translated as no more than “hip-hip-hooray”).
Standing on the balcony of the governor’s mansion to address a cheering crowd, D’Annunzio quoted Pontius Pilate’s words upon presenting the scourged Jesus to the multitude: “Ecce homo” (“Behold the man”). This time, though, the man in question was the unscourged D’Annunzio himself.
In Fiume, D’Annunzio established what he called the Regency of Carnaro, over which he presided for fifteen months. The regime sponsored nightly poetry readings and concerts punctuated by fireworks. The treatment received by the local Slovene population was less beautiful.
D’Annunzio’s adventure in Fiume was less a military than an aesthetic triumph: the creation by a short, ugly man in his fifties of a cult of militaristic adoration. D’Annunzio expertly choreographed his acts for the benefit of a breathless global media: He delayed his own entrance into Fiume until the cameras of the international press had gotten themselves into proper anticipatory position. In modern parlance, he did it for the gram.
But his Fiume spectacle was made possible by not just his celebrity status or ability to manipulate the global media, but by his power to cultivate among his followers the quasi-religious idea that in following him to Fiume, they would take on a cosmic mantle, becoming modern emblems of a latter-day Rome.
D’Annunzio’s cult of politics-as-aesthetics and his primal, nostalgic vision of masculine strength amid the senseless chaos of modernity were formative for the subsequent wave of fascists who followed him. Benito Mussolini was one of D’Annunzio’s great admirers, though D’Annunzio did not return the sentiment.
Now, in 2020, we have spent four years under the leadership of a far less adept self-creator, Donald Trump, who has nevertheless propelled himself to not just political victory but cultural ubiquity. More than that, self-creation has become characteristic of ordinary Americans—from our economic lives, with their now-ubiquitous personal branding, to our political identities. As our trust in authority wanes, we turn inward, trusting instead in our own creative powers and the digital worlds we create around ourselves. Trump’s presidency is in that sense an extension of our view of reality as something subject to will.
Thus, the past four years have been not merely a political phenomenon—fascism, populism, or something else entirely—but a cultural and aesthetic one: a working-out of what it means to make ourselves. And a culture that not only values but demands self-making will always devolve into a politics of spectacle.
The Political Becomes Personal
It is impossible to understand the appeal of Trump, like that of D’Annunzio before him, without seeing it as emblematic of long-standing tensions within the liberal project. The idea that we can, and indeed, should create ourselves, cannot be dissociated from the development of modern liberalism, especially modern liberal capitalism, with the value it places on both personal autonomy and the essential nature of desire, on what we want and how we get it.
This project’s promises and failures also explain the intermittent victories over the past hundred years of reactionary populists, from D’Annunzio to Mussolini to Trump, to even more extreme authoritarians like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who use aesthetics taken from a vanished past to galvanize what they see as a corrupt present.
Their aesthetic reactionary politics promises its adherents a respite from what it presents as quintessentially neoliberal alienation. That is, it aims to transform its adherents from the aimless and anonymous detritus of global capitalism into an impassioned collective of mythic warrior-heroes. (Think Eia, Eia, alalà, or, Make America Great Again.) But it does so in a characteristically modern way. It is a politics of identity, but not the politics of those identities into which we are often born, like race or ethnicity. Instead, it is a politics of identity formation.
It is based on the idea that we are not merely in control of our own destinies but morally obligated to be so. If we do not take utmost advantage of our own circumstances, live our best life, we are not just failing materially but betraying our natures. We exist, as contemporary liberal internet capitalism tells us, in order to self-create. We are the final fruits of our own labors.
The liberal project has long equated human creative potential with the human accumulation of property. The dignity of the self is predicated on the exercise of reason, by which the self cultivates itself and reaches its fullest stage of flourishing. Labor-as-cultivation, Locke tells us, the transformation of the natural and inchoate into the orderly and willed, is at the heart of our twinned ownership of our property and our being. Rousseau concluded, similarly, that human beings have “no route to flourishing except through self-cultivation.”
As the philosopher Charles Taylor writes in Sources of the Self, such philosophical premises heralded an era that “prizes autonomy” and “gives an important place to self-exploration, in particular of feeling,” and one whose “visions of the good life generally involve personal commitment.” The idea that we should consider our willed action rather than passive facts of biology or family as the essence of our selfhood—this is the idea at the heart of liberalism’s promise.
It is no accident that the proliferation of modern liberalism coincided with the rise of the modern novel with its focus on individual, particular characters rather than mythic archetypes. The era of Defoe, Fielding, and Richardson, as Taylor points out, reflects a wider cultural interest in the particular self rather than the wider generic categories to which it belongs.
The Sand Underfoot
True, the liberal promise of self-creation holds within it the allure and threat of self-destruction, of an alienated loneliness. The cultivation of the self as self denies the possibility of considering the self as being in communion with others. The claim to self-sovereignty alienates us from the world we have claimed as our domain.
More than a few philosophers and cultural critics have written about the terrifying quality of that self-sovereignty. Søren Kierkegaard wrote of the “dizziness of freedom,” the sense of separation from ourselves that stems from our having claimed too much sovereignty over our own lives and failed to recognize our relation to God. Jean-Paul Sartre writes of this alienating anxiety as “anguish to the extent that I am afraid not of falling over the precipice but of throwing myself over” it. We respond to untrammeled freedom not with joy but with the existential terror that comes from being unable to recognize ourselves.
This anxiety, though, is the product not merely of liberalism but of secular liberalism.
The progenitors of modern liberalism, men like Locke and Hobbes working firmly within the Christian tradition, saw self-authorship as secondary to and correlated with God’s creation of and authority over human beings. Human freedom was limited by divine prerogative. The power of “self-making” was a kind of suzerainty rather than full sovereignty. In an increasingly secular time, however, the liberal vision has been severed from that religious safeguard. It has thus come to conflate the human and the divine, rendering us all miniature gods whose creative sovereignty is absolute.
These tendencies have only been intensified by capitalism, which magnifies the liberal focus on will and cultivation. Capitalism views our value as lying exclusively in what we produce. It thus calls on us to create ourselves as product; our created selves are worthwhile only as commodities, and our status as creators is reduced to a necessity. The model ascribes divinity to our will but denies that we might have intrinsic value as irreducible human beings.
The upshot is that artificiality to the point of absurdity, untrammeled by truth, can come to bend the fabric of reality itself. In an era in which we can Photoshop and Facetune our most casual selfies before sharing them for public consumption, the lines between bombastic Trumpian post-truthism and what we might call “ordinary” self-creation are blurred. Trump, you might say, is nothing more than the golem of extant Trumpianism, aesthetics made flesh.
Trump, with his promise to “make America great again,” combines, like D’Annunzio before him, a modern vision of self-creation with an atavistic nostalgia. Vote Trump, so the rhetoric went, and propel yourself back into a glorious age of hierarchy and certainty, where men were men and women were women and everybody knew where they fit in the taxonomy of human relations. Much of the success of this message, to be sure, is attributable to more craven, less complicated instincts: racism, misogyny, white supremacy.
Yet to reduce MAGA to those elements is to overlook something fundamental. Trump, like D’Annunzio, invites his followers both to resist liberal notions of self-creation and to exemplify them, casting themselves in roles that are not particular but archetypical. The populist culture war, which sees its adherents as classical heroes battling in defense of Western civilization, creates the self not as a character in a novel—isolated, individualistic, and particular—but as a figure of myth, at one with the communal.
The success of D’Annunzian and Trumpist aesthetic populism rests, fundamentally, on this ambiguity. Both men became politically powerful celebrities through self-conscious exaggeration, with the extreme and even camp natures of their chosen identities intensifying their rhetorical power by highlighting and capitalizing on the inherent alienation of the broader liberal culture. Yet both men managed to captivate their followers because their rhetoric offered an alternative to that alienation: the opportunity to become not a product or even a character, but a legend.
The Trump presidency may be coming to an end, but the cultural tensions that propelled Trump into power are more salient than ever. A global pandemic has laid bare our national loneliness, the myriad dehumanizing ways in which modern, internet-saturated capitalism has rendered us ever more atomized, encountering one another through a screen darkly and even literally. We as a country lack a coherent civic myth, a compelling vision of ourselves as part of a wider, truer, narrative than what we can create in 280 characters.
The greatest and most palpable promise of liberalism—a vision of distinctness, of the idea that we as human beings possess something inalienable that transcends the accidents of circumstance—has given way to the absurd, nightmarish demand to dehumanize ourselves in the service of social, sexual, and literal capital. The cosmic-level, quasi-religious myths told by Trump, myths that sustained him even as his presidency disregarded literal truth, have been told by authoritarians before him and will be told again. They will offer, as they have so many times before, an aesthetically and viscerally compelling alternative to the alienating loneliness of self-creation under liberal capitalism. And, primed by our cultural contradictions, they will continue to find fertile territory in which to grow.
Tara Isabella Burton is a contributing editor at American Purpose and author of Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (Public Affairs, 2020). She is also a columnist on millennial religion for Religion News Service. Her debut novel, Social Creature, was published by Doubleday in 2018.
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